Friday, November 29, 2013


When I was in high school, an older student informed me that the goal of a prep was not to be "cool," but "smooth."  I'm not sure what he meant by that (and I doubt he totally was either), but it smoothness makes me think of sprezzatura.  Sprezzatura was a concept invented by Baldasare Castiglione in his book "Book of the Courtier" to describe doing something in an apparently effortless way.  It wasn't important that it actually be effortless; it just needed to appear that way.

Castiglione's book was the most famous of many from the 16th century that offered advice to would-be courtiers.  In an age of absolutist rulers, the quickest way to advance was to be impress the ruler in person.  This was very different in substance from the ideas of ataraxia and patience that ancient authors had espoused; it wasn't a general approach to life, but rather a specific way of getting ahead.  Nevertheless, it wasn't entirely new (of course); there had always been philsophers who had advocated going along to get along, keeping one's true feelings to oneself.  In the 17th century, this developed into a significant philosophical school of "dissimulation," which was prudent for those who lived in absolutist states and didn't always share the political or religious views of the ruler.

If someone appears calm and unperturbed, is he genuinely "cool," or is he dissimulating?  The question of "authenticity" became a major theme of the 20th century.  I remember a Peanuts cartoon in which Lucy expresses her frustration to Charlie Brown:  "how do you tell the phonies from the realies"?  I didn't understand it at all when I was growing up, but I appreciate it more now.  People are still concerned with authenticity.  Consider the popular expression "keeping it real."  On the other end of the cultural spectrum, Martin Heidegger denounced "the vulgar temporality of calculation."  We all seem to sense that people are rarely who they seem to be, and that bothers us.

Sometimes, this seems perfectly understandable.  We don't want someone to pretend to be friends with us today only to talk about us behind our backs.  We actually have an innate sense of when a person's smile is not genuine and it really bothers us when someone pretends to be nice.  But why?  Would it be better if people just acted the way they really felt and insulted us if they don't like us?  That might be preferable to stabbing us in the back; at least then, we'd know where we stand.  But it isn't obviously preferable to having someone behave in a civil fashion in spite of their antipathy.  Maybe a person hates us, but doesn't want to show it.  Maybe he has selfish interests, or maybe he just thinks that it is his responsibility to be nice even if he doesn't like us.  It isn't clear (to me, anyway) that we would be better off if everyone acted on their gut feelings rather than put up a polite veneer.

Whenever I think of politeness and manners, I always think of Japanese society, in which it is carried to an extreme.  I value American forthrightness and I can't imagine living in a country where people expected me to lie about my preferences for the sake of preserving appearances.  I want to be myself.

On the other hand, what is "myself"?  On some album notes, I once read Pete Townshend of The Who saying that when we lose ourselves, we ironically find our true selves.  That seems self-evidently true in one sense, but it bothers me.  Everyone has feelings beneath the surface -- unconscious, or subconscious, or limbic, or however you want to express it -- that are beyond our conscious understanding.  We ignore those feelings at our peril; uncovering them can be liberating.  Yet are our unconscious feelings any more real than our conscious ones?  Why should we consider our irrational, gut feelings to be any more indicative of who we truly are than all the rational and emotional structures that are within the reach of our consciousness?  Suppose someone hates you, but goes out of his way to be pleasant.  Is his "real self" the one that hates you, or is it the one that tells him to be nice even if his feelings aren't?

Being inauthentic calls to mind people doing things for the sake of other people:  acting cool, or smooth, or nice, even when that isn't what they are feeling.  But we also sense that we can be inauthentic to ourselves, even if no one is around to see us.  We do things because we think we should, not in a moral sense, but because we feel -- sometimes explicitly, often just vaguely -- that it is the way people are supposed to act.  A common theme among adolescent girls is the desire for a fairy-tale wedding, complete with being swept off her feet by a knight in shining armor.  Some girls go to extremes to make this dream come true, not because they want other people to see them as princesses, but because they want to see themselves in that light.  They want their lives to fit a pattern that they associate with happiness.

Is that bad?  In the case of would-be princesses, it has the obvious danger that a lot of girls will be disappointed to find that life rarely works like fairy tales.  There is even a genre of literature and movies, the "fractured fairy tale," that plays on this theme (think "The Princess Bride" and "Shrek").  But I'm not convinced that striving for an ideal is a bad thing.  People accomplish amazing things in order to live up to positive ideals, sometimes set by specific people in their lives or by real-life heroes, and sometimes just based on general cultural norms.  If a pianist works extremely hard so that he can play as well as Franz Liszt, does that make him inauthentic?  Does it matter if he is inherently lazy and has to overcome his own inertia?  Does it matter if he achieves his goal and feels great personal satisfaction or if he falls short of it and is disappointed?  How about falling short and feeling content that he did his best?

One problem is that we all have models in our minds that we emulate, whether we do it consciously or not.  Another problem is that it is virtually impossible to say what constitutes our natural limits.  If a person who is inherently slow practices hard and becomes a marathon champion, we hail him as a hero; if he becomes a decent marathoner but not a champion, we still admire his devotion and hard work; but if he falls far short, we consider it pathetic and sad.  How is he to know in advance whether his effort is going to pay off?  Or if a man decides to fight in his own defense instead of running away, how outmatched does he have to be before we call him foolish instead of brave?

Physical limitations aren't even the most important kind.  What about a person who is terrified of meeting new people?  If he really wants a career as a salesman where he has to meet new people every day, he might work hard at overcoming his fear, learning people's names, and figuring out how to talk in a relaxed manner with strangers.  Would he say he wasn't being true to himself if he did this?  Maybe he was shy for his first 20 or 25 years, but became outgoing as an adult.  Is he a phony, or is he authentically achieving his own dreams?  What if he goes into sales not because he wants to, but because he needs to in order to make money?  What if he just accidentally ended up in sales because he couldn't figure out where his interests really lay?  Does it matter to his authenticity if he is successful in making the transition?

I often think of Walker Percy's "Lost in the Cosmos," a curious book subtitled "The Last Self-Help Book."  He intends the subtitle ironically, because he thinks that people are too willing to accept the advice of experts and try to change themselves to be someone else -- outgoing and assertive, for instance.  I found it convincing for a long time, but then I started to think of the implications.  Probably Percy did not intend that no one try to change his personality; surely there are people who have debilitating or sociopathic personality traits that they could legitimately want to change.  But then, where do we draw the line?  When does a person's attempt at self-improvement change from authentic to inauthentic?

After all this, I'm sorry to say that I still don't have an answer.  Some people do seem phony, and it bothers me even if they have never done anything to hurt me and never will.  It bothers me when people put too much effort into creating the perfect, symbolic moment, like politicians who frame photo-ops meant to look spontaneous but actually entirely staged.  And yet I think tradition is a fine thing, and getting married in the same style that most Americans have done for the past hundred years, while not necessary, is not only permissable but has certain benefits over non-traditional weddings.  Like people who can tell an authentic smile from a fake one even if they can't explain why, I have a sense of what is authentic even though I have very little way to describe why I feel some things are and others aren't.  But, then, maybe authenticity is like a smile:  what matters is what you feel on the inside.  Even if someone can fake an authentic-looking smile, it would still be fake because the feelings behind the smile are not genuine.  And maybe there is no way to know if someone is being authentic in his actions without understanding his motives for doing it.  Unless we're going to surrender all consideration for other people, self-control is required, and therefore everything we do is a sort of act.  Perhaps there is an authentic way of acting and an inauthentic way, and only the person acting can know for sure which he is doing.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Being Cool

When I was young, I was the opposite of cool, and I had a correspondingly low opinion of the concept.  Sure, I liked Fonzie, but when I thought of people being cool, I thought of classmates putting on airs to get attention.

Now I'm much older.  I'm still not cool, but I have a much better appreciation of the concept.  "Cool," it turns out, was not invented in 1957 (pace Miles Davis's album "The Birth of Cool" from that year), and not even in the modern era.  The original cool goes back to the ancient Greeks and the Stoics' concept of "apatheia," or equanimity.  They aimed to free themselves from their passions to attain this state of calm, and what is a cool person but one who remains calm and collected in the face of upsetting circumstances?  The concept was adapted and extended by Epicurus, who used the term "ataraxia," or tranquility -- freedom from stress and worry.

Another philosophical school that promoted ataraxia was the Sceptics.  Since they felt that no knowledge was certain, there was no reason to get upset about the things that we only think we know.  If you believe in being cool, you don't have to be a sceptic, but being sceptical does seem to imply a value in not overreacting.  Scepticism revived in the 17th century.  We are all familiar with Descartes's famous observation that all knowledge begins with doubt, and his irreducible minimum statement of existence -- I think, therefore I am.  Scepticism went hand in hand with the developement of the scientific method, which aims to question all things and test them empirically.  Ironically, therefore, a philosophy that doubts the certainty of knowledge contributed in a major way to the developement of modern science.

But the sceptical approach to cool is secondary, it appears to me.  What is more important to most people is not how we understand the world but how we react to it.  Being cool is one of a few different approaches.  Another one would be Christian patience, in which believers are urged to put their faith in God and bear suffering willingly because it is part of God's plan.  Tertullian (d. AD 225) was an early Christian thinker who emphasized the virtue of patience. Like sceptical ataraxia, Christian patience begins with limited knowledge; unlike the sceptical view, however, the Christian is obliged to patience because he trusts that God has a plan for him.  The Christian concept of patience is more active, implying continued activity in the face of disappointment.

The Romantic notion, by contrast, seeks for authentic emotions, even -- especially -- those involving passionate expressions of one's feelings.  Then there are those people who approach life without theories or preconceived notions, who allow their emotions to carry them along because it has not occurred to them to do anything else.

There is something to be said for just expressing your emotions naturally.  That's the Romantic ideal, after all:  just to be yourself, and not act according to a plan.  Unfortunately, people who allow their emotions to dictate their behaviour are typically considered childish and anti-social, and for good reason.  You wouldn't want someone to say whatever he feels regardless of other people's feelings, and you wouldn't want someone whining every time he didn't get his way.  Self-control is almost a pre-requisite for living in a civil society.

This is especially the case for leaders.  Who would want to be governed by someone who could not control his emotions?  A president might start a nuclear war; a policeman might beat a suspect to death for resisting.  We look to leaders to take measured responses, both for their practical effect and for their ability to reassure us.  Think of FDR explaining that Americans had nothing to fear but fear itself.  (A dubious proposition, but the sort of thing we expect from a leader.)

There is actually a biological basis for cool, which is associated with decreased levels of cortisol and increased levels of serotonin.  Cortisol stimulates the fight-or-flight response, which is the antithesis of cool.  Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, which is well-known since the development of drugs such as Prozac that increase its level in the human brain.  It has a calming effect; low values are associated with increased aggression, and high values are associated with higher social status.  And while I suspect individuals with high serotonin levels are more likely to achieve higher social status, it is also true that higher social status can increase serotonin levels (see this TED talk).

So I am inclined to think that being cool is a desirable characteristic and a reasonable thing to strive for.  People understandably look to cool people as their leaders, and strive to be cool themselves in order to achieve social status.  This brings us to the big problem with cool:  how do you separate the people who really possess the ability to remain calm under stress from those who merely want to create that image?  In other words, what is authentically cool?  In my next entry, I will discuss the problem of authenticity.